Brent McCombs/AlterEgo Photography of Halifax | The Popularity Contest Dilemma

The Popularity Contest Dilemma

March 04, 2012  •  3 Comments

Before this article begins, I'd like to apologize for its length. I believe blog entries should generally be short, make a single point, and then wrap up. But I've been sitting here watching the Brier and trying to edit this down for a couple of hours now, and it's just too complicated a topic to wrap up in a sound bite or a couple paragraphs.  So if you don't have a lot of time, and don't care about popularity contests, let me say thanks for stopping by and you might want to just tab down to the bottom to see my prediction for this year's Brier winner....


Through no effort or intention on my part, I was recently nominated to be part of a popularity contest to be named "Favourite Photographer (male)" in a local magazine. Will I win? I hope not. But it it's an annoyance just to be nominated.




Yup - You see, I was the guest speaker for the photo class at the Centre for Arts and Technology on Friday, and I had brief but fairly interesting discussion over whether or not being nominated for such a thing was actually a positive or negative thing for me and my business. I don't think it's nearly as cut and dried as it would seem at first glance. And having talked it out, and then continued the conversation with other photographers and nominees from other categories - I've come to the conclusion that being involved in these contests are kind of a bad thing.


Which is, I think, an unusual position, as my impression is that most folks in town would see getting a nomination like this as a good thing.


So let me explain.


The first thing I should say before even discussing the current situation, is that I have a pretty strong belief that any sort of ranking system of art is a fundamentally fruitless endeavour.  How do you debate something like 'who was the better painter, Matisse or Monet?'  It may be a fun topic to bat around in the pub after a second year art history class, but the real answer is "both were masters", and any individual leanings boil down to simply personal taste.  The same holds true for almost any art form. "Which is a better rock band, the Stones or U2? Who is the better actor, Hugh Jackman or Daniel Craig?"


All such questions come down to personal preference. And everyone has different taste. Which is natural. I point out that everyone who has an MP3 player, if they bother to curate their own songs, develops a play list for themselves which is often filled with a wide variety of eclectic music. And if you take two people - even siblings or best friends - and have them list their entire play list - while some songs will likely be the same, a whole lot won't be. We all like different stuff. Which is fine, and, in the grand scheme of the world, really good. Otherwise art would be boring as hell.


And, I suppose, the fact that people don't generally agree on taste for art or restaurants is the entire point of popularity contests in magazines and on social networks - which brings us back nicely to my problem with the current situation.


Contests based on 'likes' or 'popular vote'  make absolutely no evaluation of the actual merits of the subject being voted upon. And to be honest, the magazine or website sponsoring these contests don't care at all if they do. To the magazine, the entire purpose of these contests is to drive readers to their publication and page views to their websites. This is because advertising rates are based on readership and page views. So for the magazine, it doesn't make a lick of difference if quality restaurants, photographers, DJs, drag queens, plumbers or designers are nominated. Just so long as a lot of people are driven to their publication or site, they win.


So without any initial filter to make sure all those nominated are of at least a minimum level of professional quality, the whole 'favourite' thing becomes majorly problematic. The nominations bear this out. Any vote on photographers in Halifax which doesn't include Steve Richard and James Ingram is invalid from the get-go. Period. Some may say that I have a bias toward Steve because he's my studio partner - and that may be the case. But I don't think I've ever even met James Ingram - and he damn well should be included in any qualitative measure of photographic quality.


And it's not just photography - how are Orphanage, Turbine, Cranky, uMame or any of a dozen other local working designers not nominated in the Designer category? There are only 4 selections, rather than the normal 5 - so there was even an open slot. Yes, sometimes the scattershot/randomly chosen approach can get it right - Veronica MacIsaac did get nominated in Designer - however it just as often it doesn't. Overall, it's just silly.


Now for categories like 'bartender' or 'babe', it's a little different. Then it's a fun local competition with bragging rights on the line and not much else.


But the problem for me, as a photographer running a ~business~ in the city is that way, WAY too often, casual observers of such competitions - (and that's the vast majority of people and potential customers) DO mistakenly view these contests as a commentary on quality. And then they make purchasing decisions based on that observation.


This is not a new phenomenon, and it's common in advertising to associate popularity with quality. Think about McDonald's claim "Over 99 billion served", Think about MasterCraft tools from Canadian Tire. They are generally cheaply made, and quite often break. But if you're on a budget, it's easier to buy a hammer or wrench for $15 every couple years, rather than spend $75 on a tool that will last a lifetime. So going with MasterCraft, you probably end up paying more over your lifetime, as you need to buy 6 or 7 tools instead of one. But low quality works for Canadian Tire, cause they sell a lot more product - AND they get to advertise MasterCraft as 'The best selling tools in Canada'….  Because that sounds a lot better than something like "Low-quality crap, but you can afford it!".


So if a nominated business doesn't play ball and lobby for support, that business could well be losing money if they don't win. But if the business does play ball, and go out and lobby their friends and clients to vote - they add legitimacy to the contest by association.


It's a Catch-22 for everyone involved.


But even more horrific for my business is that when the 'winners' issue comes out, a visiting art director, editor or fashion designer may pick up the magazine and see 'favourite photographer', look up their work, and assume that its the best the city has to offer. If the popularity contest is won by an inexperienced photographer who makes boring, bland or outright bad images, then all of us in the industry are being painted by the same brush. In that sense, I'd rather not to be nominated, and have Steve Richard or James Ingram winning and representing the best of what we can do, than to have some kid with no clue about the zone system win 'cause they have 2500 friends on facebook.


And an accumulation of things like this contribute to the perception, in Toronto and Montreal and New York, that they have to bring in photographers to do work here. When that's absolutely not the case.


So the choice becomes play ball, and by doing so help legitimize something that runs against my personal beliefs, holds no actual validity in evaluating merit and give free advertising to a publication which I didn't even asked to be part of; or don't play ball, maintain my personal ethics, but run the risk that the entire process potentially continue the trend of delegitimizing the entire industry in Halifax when viewed from the outside.



It is a completely Lose/Lose situation.  And I think the same dilemma exists for anyone running a business that has a market beyond Halifax. What does the editor of Elle Canada or Vogue USA think if when passing through the city they see that the 'favourite designer' of Halifax is someone who can't sew a hem in a straight line? Does that help or hinder the industry?


The one bright spot I take away from it is that even though I refuse to lobby for nominations or votes,  it's very nice to know that there are, out there, some people whom I've worked with, some friends, and hopefully a few folks who just know my work who thought of putting my name down for nomination. And bellyache as much as I may about this process, I actually DO very much appreciate them.




And now, my prediction for the Brier winner (Glenn Howard/Ontario)....

Ontario - my early prediction to win the Brier


Agree with most parts, except the visiting art director/editor bit.

I feel a visiting art director or editor would have a bit more knowledge as to which 'local magazines' should be considered honest sources for local talent. I'd hope they'd be in the biz long enough to know the difference between a sound publication and a simple popularity contest running in a vehicle made for small biz advertising. I'd also hope they'd rely on their network of local studios/media agencies/creatives when looking for talent first, then some random glossy sitting on a coffee table.

If they picked up a publication with a "Halifax's Favorite" edition and genuinely loved what they saw in terms of a creative's skills, then the work spoke for itself and there's nothing detrimental in that.
I agree with everything you're saying here Brent - well put.
Tanya Reynolds(non-registered)
I agree with a lot of what you're saying here Brent.
No comments posted.

Construction on the new Studio in Bayers Lake continues a bit ahead of schedule. Light fixtures have gone in and trim is being painted in Studio A, with putty being completed in Studio B today, and painting likely starting on Monday.

January February (2) March (1) April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December